By Christopher Mooney -
The remnants of a near-forgotten dream tap at the inside of my skull, asking if I know whether the sun rises in the east or the west. Fuck it, I think as I shake a cigarette out a near-empty pack and reach for the lighter my mother gave me as a birthday present nine days before she died, I don’t know and I don’t need to know.
Twenty minutes later and I’m double-parking my black Impala across the street from the open-all-hours restaurant in Queens where street boss Giacome ‘Quarters’ Moretti has been holding court since the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club got turned into a fucking shoe boutique for the migrating middle-class. People call him Quarters because he won’t tolerate a phone in his house, preferring instead to feed rolls of coins into random public booths in order to conduct the business that helps him put steaks in the freezer. And what a freezer it is, with a reputed five hundred million dollars a year coming in from gambling, prostitution, narcotics and numbers, among other things. He hides the oceans of cash from these operations behind a variety of legitimate corporations, including this place, because he knows the importance of having a stand-up front for people who draw outside society’s lines. Gone are the days of fuck it, I’m a gangster and I don’t care who knows it. Those people are serving social death sentences in government cages, among them the de facto boss of the family Quarters is now responsible for.
There are made guys all over the sidewalk. I’ve been around them long enough not to be fooled by the ineptitude suggested by the sea of gabardine pants, beige polo shirts and two-tone shoes. We’re not talking shell-suit wearing, always-swearing, Soprano-wannabe plastic motherfuckers here; these guys are old-school men's men, real villains who wouldn’t think twice about putting your lights out all the way over a fucking parking spot. and an undeniable lack of fashion-forward thinking doesn’t mean they won’t be packing some serious iron. That’s why I open up my jacket as I cross the street; to let them see I’ve done the right thing, the respectful thing, and left my own piece at home. Well, in the trunk of the car.
An enormous lump emerges from the group as I approach; a person so big that, if he took a piss in your garden, you’d have to build a moat or move house. Stone-cold gangster Sally Fifth, baptised Salvatore Bruno, has a reputation for never saying word one whenever he finds himself in custody. Legend has it he won’t even confirm his name, be it the one on his Sicilian birth certificate or the one he’s known by on the street.
“Sal,” I say with a nod of the head.
“Right on time,” he says. “You always were a smart kid.” Then, gesturing with his hands, “You know the drill. No offence.”
“None taken,” I say, spreading my legs and lifting up my arms as he takes that last step towards me, his shadow eating the light.
Sal’s meat hooks do their thing, which, because of a recent rat infestation across the borough, is much more intimate than I remember it.
“Christ,” I say when he’s finished, “how much I owe you?”
“Gotta do it this way now. Don’t mean I like you,” he growls, moving back and out of the way so I can see the door that’s been there all along.
Guiseppe’s Tavernia is a poor man’s copy of a faxed caricature. Red-checked tablecloths. A bastardised menu. Barely-audible canned opera falling out of tinny, wall-mounted speakers. Pale-skinned waiters with a suspicious Brooklyn twang mixed in with so-called authentic Italian accents. There’s even a black-and-white photo of James Gandolfini, pre-mortem, above the wine-laden gantry, for Christ’s sake, 1961-2013 handwritten underneath. Last time I was in here was nearly four years ago, the night I made my bones painting Frankie Barone’s memories and regrets all over the rear wall.
Quarters is seated by himself at a table near the back, in front of that wall, a glass of red and a half-eaten plate of antipasti at his elbow.
He was aging badly the last time I saw him. Now he’s just old, the mahogany flesh and tailored two-piece hanging apologetically from his thin frame.
“Mr. Moretti,” I say, extending my hand. He shakes it without getting up.
“How are you, kid?” he says. “You doin’ okay?”
“I’m fine. Mr. Moretti. Thank you. And you? Still as strong as a bull, I see.”
A short smile. “You want something?” He gestures at the food at drink, telling me he’s all set.
“That’d be great. Thank you.”
Quarters nods his head and a waiter appears as if by magic, “What’ll you a-have?”
“I’ll have the Breakfast-Any-Time,” I mumble through half a smirk, well aware I’m pushing my luck.
“I no even a-know what that ees,” he manages with a straight face, and I begin to wonder which of us is the genuine comedian of this risky double-act.
No breakfast or bruschetta on the menu, yet you have Hawaiian pizza and garlic bread? Plenty of material there, no doubt, but I decide to play the safe hand, “Just coffee then.”
“How you like eet?”
“Strong. With some cream and plenty of sugar. And no,” unable to resist a closing gag, “I don’t want ground pepper in it.”
“No problemo.” He actually fucking says that.
Quarters brings me back with a question I haven’t heard in a while, “How’s your old man?”
“You’ll have to dig him up to ask him,” I say.
“He’s dead?” A hint of something flickers across his eyes; anger, maybe, or what a poet would call remorse.
“Last time I checked. That’s why we buried him.”
“When was this?”
“Coupla three years ago, something like that.”
“Christ. What the hell happened?”
“They found his body among the trash cans in a back alley not far from where we’re sitting, a handful of holes in his back that shouldn’t have been there. No prizes for guessing there were no witnesses, so the cops didn’t have much to go on. It’s still an open case, far as I know.”
“You, a young man with both his parents dead and gone. May they rest in peace.” He blesses himself twice.
I grunt, both hands still flat on the table. I’d been brought up Catholic but stopped going, stopped giving a shit, when I reached the age of reason. Now all I feel when I see them kneeling and hear them reciting their empty incantations is contempt.
“How come I’m just hearing about this?”
“You were in the can. Probably was nobody wanted to give you that kind of news while you were behind the door. They tell me the time’s hard enough.”
“They’re not wrong. Still, you’d think I’d have heard since I got out. It looks like disrespect, me not sending my condolences.”
I wave my right hand in the air, telling him not to give it a second thought. “I don’t feel that way.”
“He was a good man, your father.”
“Some people say.”
“And a good fucking earner.”
The nickels and dimes, always. “I heard that, too. Too bad my ma never saw any of it.”
“People’s lives, their relationships,” he says, “you can never be sure what’s behind it all.”
I begin to speak again, to protest, but he holds up a hand to silence me, saying that’s how he sees it, let’s leave it at that. He’s about to say something else when the waiter brings my coffee, sets it down without a word.
Almost a full minute of silence after that as I stir in the cream and sugar. When the next words come, they’re his, “That can’t be good for you, having it like that.”
“The way I figure it, I gotta die of something some time, right?”
A sardonic smile but no words from a man who knows he’s closer to death than birth. Then, “Listen, the reason you’re here, there’s a piece of work needs doing. Something sensitive that requires an outfit guy who knows the neighbourhood, its nuances, shit like that.”
Now I understand why he brought me here, to Guiseppe’s. He’s telling me, I know about you, that you’ve done it before, so it’s no big deal. Capisce?
I say the only thing I can say, “Of course, Mr. Moretti. I’ll be happy to take care of it for you.”
He places his right hand on top of my left hand, patting it. There are chestnut-like bruises on his knuckles. “Good boy,” he says, standing now, telling me we’re done whether I’ve touched my fucking coffee or not. “I knew I could count on you. See Salvatore on the way out. He’ll give you the details.”
I’m half-way to the door when I hear, “Kid.” I turn around, my eyes meeting his as he says, “Don’t fuck this up, okay?”
No surprise that the piece of work turns out to be reducing the local area’s population by one adult male.
Wayne Bruce, who everybody calls Manbat, isn’t one of us. With his pale skin, dishwater-blonde hair and a caffeine allergy, he’s about as close to being an Italian-American as I am to being a fucking giraffe. We all grew up with him around the neighbourhood, but nobody never forgot he’d moved here; the rest of us had been born and bred on the same mean streets.
Manbat gradually bridged the gap, though, in spite of the differences, and by the time we’d turned our heels on our teens he looked like what he’d become: a hard bastard. With shovels for hands and a face that had a lot in common with a tenement brick, he really was as tough as a casket nail. Native or no fucking native, he had tools useful to this thing of ours and it wasn’t long before the capos put him to work. Fair to say, as an enforcer and an earner, there were few better.
It wasn’t the blast of a rival’s pistol or even a stroke of misfortune that brought him down. It was junk. A supposedly-harmless taste in the big city one night was all it took to sink the hook. In the blink of an eye, he went from a rampaging street-fighter to a hopelessly-addicted all-nighter. The heroin cost him his edge. And his judgement. In order to keep up the habit, he did less planning and more low-level banging, often flying solo to hold up gravel-lot corner stores for ready cash in capers that should have been beneath him. Fearless and feared, Manbat spent nearly two decades cementing his legend. Pathetic junky Wayne Bruce took only a handful of short months to piss it all away, just so he could put mud in the vein.
In the here and now, his neck under my left shoe, my right shoe having a kick at his corrugated ribs, he’s nothing more than the latest junky to default on the long-established payment plan. Quarters supplies the gear for people who can’t afford it up front, most of whom have a habit that costs more going out than they’ll ever have coming in. To be paid back with industrial-sized vig, of course.
Manbat, because of what he used to be capable of, has had more lives than a lucky fucking cat. He should’ve recognised the breaks and kept his head down, but addiction imposes contact and now Quarters has given the word. No more chances. Enough is enough, even for someone who is almost one of our own.
“Don’t shoot me!” Manbat says, on his knees now, hands together in supplication. “Please, listen to me.”
“Shut the fuck up,” I say, my finger on the trigger and the barrel against the back of his neck. “No more talk. You know the – .”
“Don’t shoot,” he interrupts, “and I’ll tell you what happened.”
“Whatever this is, it’s too late. He gave the order. You of all people know what that means, Wayne.”
“No, wait. I know who killed your father.”
“The fuck you do.”
“It’s true. I know. You gotta believe me.”
“How?” I ask. “How do you know?”
“Because I was there. I seen it.”
Turns out Manbat was holed up with a spiked arm, because he couldn’t wait and shoot up at home, when my father was huckled up the alley and shot to death.
“Who pulled the fucking trigger?” I ask.
“I tell you, you’ll let me go?”
No answer. My head spinning.
“Paulie,” Manbat prods, “you’ll let me go?”
“Sure,” I say. “Just give me a name.”
Sally Fifth is dead before he hits the sidewalk. The bullet that killed him – Manbat’s bullet – came from the driver’s seat of my Impala, parked again across the street from Guiseppe’s Tavernia. This was the cue for chaotic scenes as wiseguys pulled out their guns while diving for cover.
Well, I think, fuck it. I’m in it now. A hail of bullets from a fully-automatic means Sally won’t be lonesome on his way to Hell, and it gives me the chance to reach the restaurant unharmed.
Quarters fires the first shot as soon as I’m through the door. It misses. My response, instinctive and immediate, does not.
This time, when I reach him, Quarters is sprawled across the back table rather than seated at it. There’s a hole in his gut that looks likely to be fatal.
“Why’d you do it?” I ask.
“Same as always, kid,” he wheezes. “Wasn’t nothing personal. I always liked him, your father, you gotta know that.”
“Funny way of showing it,” I say, squeezing off one last round. This’ll soon be another bad memory, I think, and this time there are no regrets.
But, as I turn back around to face the street, itching to get out and away, the last thing I see tells me I should have played a smarter hand; tells me I know better than to leave a living witness. Manbat says nothing.
And even if he did, I wouldn’t have heard it over the roar of the pistol.
Christopher P. Mooney was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1978. At various times in his life, he has been a paperboy, a supermarket cashier, a shelf stacker, a barman, a cinema usher, a carpet fitter's labourer, a leaflet distributor, a foreign-language assistant and a teacher. He currently lives and writes in someone else's small flat near London and his debut collection of short fiction, Whisky for Breakfast, is available now from wherever you get your books. You can find information and more stories on his website: christopherpmooney.com